Sunday, 27 September 2020


World first for part-time Coromandel resident, Joanna Sharpe

Part-time Coromandel resident, Joanna Sharpe, has achieved a world first, winning on Saturday last week the women’s division in what could well be the one and only Virtual Race Across the West (VRAW) - a segment of the infamous Race Across America, described as the world’s toughest bicycle race.

The ultra-endurance cyclist, who is a previous winner of the Coromandel K4, took the victory after the traditional Race Across America was cancelled due to Covid-19. The course of the VRAW was developed and modelled on the actual race route, mimicking the terrain and with all racers competing in real time and able to track their position within the field.

Joanna’s success in the 1,529km race came after three-and-a-half days in the saddle, with just three 45-minute sleep breaks. Exhausted and with hugely swollen legs, she completed the distance on a race bike mounted in a spare room in her house and with the support of partner, Jude Billows. She credits Jude for keeping her going during two especially tough moments - when she developed an infection on day two and when she felt completely broken 300km from the finish.

Dozens of riders who attempted the race dropped out due to the gruelling toll it took on their bodies.

Messages of congratulations flowed in from family and friends who were following Joanna’s final few kilometres online, including her mum and dad in Devon, England.

Labelling the race as “brutal,” Joanna says it was next level pain that she hoped she would never have to experience again. She had only entered the race after coronavirus had disrupted her original plan to attempt a new world record for the Long White Ride - an iconic cycle the length of New Zealand from Cape Reinga to Bluff. The challenge was inspired by her appetite for adventure and a desire to raise funds and awareness for Bowel Cancer New Zealand.

“So, it was four weeks before we were due to start the Long White Ride and things changed very rapidly,” Joanna says. “I just had to treat it like you do any race. There are an infinite number of things that can potentially go wrong and you have to be mentally prepared and willing to adapt. So, we just decided to press pause on the record attempt.”

Faced with many months of continued training, involving 3:30am starts most mornings, Joanna knew she needed to keep motivated and made the decision to enter the VRAW. “It was also an opportunity to keep focused on why I was doing it, which really was to raise awareness about bowel cancer,” she says.

The cause is deeply personal for Joanna after losing close friend, Britt Mill, who learned she had terminal bowel cancer in 2017, after multiple misdiagnosis. “The sad thing is that although bowel cancer is our second largest cancer killer, most cases are treatable if caught early, so we really want to get that message out there so more people learn to recognise the symptoms and get themselves checked out,” Joanna says.

Joanna and Jude’s love affair with the Coromandel began during a holiday 10 years ago and the couple purchased a home at Wyuna Bay home around two-and-a-half years ago. “We just felt welcome here right from the beginning,” Joanna says. “It has such a different vibe, the community is so unique but so welcoming and of course you have the total beauty.”

Having shattered her own expectations of herself in the VRAW, Joanna told those viewing the race finish online that she was looking forward to a warm bath, a cup of tea and some down time on the Coromandel, which she says is her and Jude’s happy place. 

Pictured: Part-time Coromandel resident, Joanna Sharpe, won on Saturday last week the women's division in what could well be the one and only Virtual Race Across the West, 


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The Mercury Bay Informer is a highly popular community newspaper, based in Whitianga. The paper is distributed throughout the Coromandel Peninsula, coast to coast from Thames to north of Colville.